S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).

The Mad Hatter

As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.

“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.

On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.

Paradox

At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.

These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.

Making Connections

One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.

 

The Value of Rereading

Just a few minutes ago, I finished reading my friend and fellow writer Charlene Jiminez’s blog post, “Finding the Universal Truth in your Work.” I found it so thought-provoking that I was inspired to share my thoughts (before I lose them).

Emotional Experiences and Life Experiences

As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.

Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.

For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…

The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.

But I had.

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Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated ten years of marriage. Developments in our relationship over the years have affected my ability to better understand universal truths in books like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.

Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared  helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.

I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.

Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.

A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.

What changed?

Only me.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.

But I Already Know What Happens

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.

But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.

While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?

 

Still a Writer

As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.

On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.

And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.

Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.

 

Cord vs. Chord

This is a story of mistaken identity.

Today in class, my students were working in groups, playing a review game to prepare for their upcoming test on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The game platform, called Kahoot! (I learned about it at a VDOE conference and highly recommend it; the students love it), is online, so I had procured one of our school’s mobile laptop carts for my students’ use. As I was passing out the machines, I heard one of my students exclaim, “They used the wrong cords!” I had used the cart the previous block, and noticed nothing about the cords that seemed out of the ordinary. I examined the tangled mass of chargers in the cart to see if I could discern the problem.

“What do you mean, they used the wrong cords?” I asked, addressing no one in particular. “They look fine to me.”

The same student who had proclaimed the error in the first place explained, “They used the music chords!”

Still puzzled, I continued to wordlessly examine the charger cords in the cart.

“I mean,” I said, “all the laptops seem to be charging just fine. How are these the wrong cords?”

“Cord” without an “H” refers to an electrical cord, such as is part of a charger for, say, a laptop. “Chord” with an “H” refers to musical chords, as in, “Play me a few chords, Maestro!”

After another minute or two of beffudlement, one of my students realized where the confusion originated: I was looking at the actual cords in the cart; my student was reading a sign on the front of the cart, which said, in part:

“Please be sure all chords are neatly stored inside the cart.”

Ah! My student had noticed and was perturbed by something that would, had I noticed the sign in the first place, also have perturbed me: the misspelling of a homophone.

“Cord” without an “H” refers to an electrical cord, such as is part of a charger for, say, a laptop. “Chord” with an “H” refers to musical chords, as in, “Play me a few chords, Maestro!”

No doubt the fact that the student who pointed this mistake out is one of our band students played a role in his quick discernment of the error. Still, as his English teacher, I was proud of his sharp eye.

 

Word of the Week: Lacuna

Once again, I’m early with this week’s Word of the Week post, in an effort not to miss it. Sunday, will again be a travel day for me, as I will be coming home from my last trip of summer break, which ends on Monday, making this week’s word, “lacuna,” a fairly appropriate one.

As a teacher, I often field the question: What do you do all summer?–an implication that surely, with a two-month lacuna in the demands of my job, I will get bored. I can assure you, that is never a concern.

I came across the word “lacuna” in the novel I am (still) currently reading, 2666. Merriam-Webster’s simple definition of the word is “a gap or blank space in something: a missing part.” The full definition also includes “a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure.” Dictionary.com expands the definition to a third possibility: “an air space in the cellular tissue of plants.” “Lacuna” can also be applied to music, denoting an extended silence in a piece. I think my favorite definition for the word is probably the most general: “an unfilled space or interval; a gap,” which is the result of a simple Google search of the word (another result of said search being that The Lacuna is also a novel by Barbara Kingsolver, in case you’re interested).

This definition appeals to me for two reasons. One: Its broadness allows for the word’s application to so many spheres–music, language, work, manuscripts and texts, career, romance, physical landscape, memory, sleep–there could be a “lacuna” in practically anything. Two: My summer break is a kind of lacuna–a hiatus from the harried day-to-day of late August through mid June, when my days begin at 4:45 in the morning and often don’t end until long past my point of exhaustion.

And although “lacuna” denotes a sort of emptiness, a something missing, I can honestly say that my summer days are jam-packed–just not with stress and work and duties. My summer was indeed a lacuna in the daily grind, but was in no way devoid of activity. So, to answer the question with which we began: What did I do with my summer break–how did I fill that seeming lacuna? Here’s the short list:

  1. Visited family in Florida twice.

  2. Visited family in Michigan.

  3. Traveled to Pennsylvania twice, once for a family reunion and once to see a friend.

  4. Visited family in the Outer Banks twice.

  5. Worked on my novel in various capacities.

  6. Submitted pieces of my writing to various publications.

  7. Worked on lesson plans for the upcoming school year.

  8. Completed a course to become a certified life coach.

  9. Read two novels (still working on the third).

  10. Traveled to the Northern Neck a handful of times.

  11. Took my dogs on really long walks every morning.

  12. Spent bonus time with my local family.

  13. Went to the river a few times.

  14. Laid out in the sun.

  15. Threw a Summer Solstice Potluck Party.

  16. Kept my house marginally cleaner.

  17. Continued to maintain this lovely little blog.

  18. Attended a professional development session during which I created a class website.

  19. Took naps.

  20. Grew food.

I’ll stop there. I’m quite sure you get the point: Even my lacuna was full!

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week:

Glebe

Otiose

Apricate

 

Lesson Plan: Recipe Poetry

The school year is winding down, and my students (and I!) are feeling a bit squirrely. We just took our last test of the school year on Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and there are a mere six regular school days left before final exams. So what do we do with this odd in-between that doesn’t allow enough time for another full unit, but is certainly too much time to descend into the pit of meaningless movie-watching day after day? The answer is: We write.

Now, tell that to most students, and they cringe. But I’m not talking about five-page-research-paper-in-the-MLA-format writing. I’m talking about fun writing. I know, I know. If my students remember what an oxymoron is, they’d apply it to the term “fun writing.” And of course, as a writer, I’m a bit biased; I think almost all writing is fun.

But I think my students did have fun writing today. Here is what we did:

Recipe Poetry

Time:

60-70 minutes

Objective:

Students will: analyze nonfiction writing; analyze authentic texts; review and identify verbs; write using strong, specific verbs; write creatively, informally, and for enjoyment; analyze the structure and elements of an authentic, nonfiction text; work cooperatively; engage in the creative process; think critically, creatively, and abstractly; share their written work aloud

Materials:

several sheets of notebook paper, composition book, or spiral notebook for every student

writing utensil for each student

several copies of cooking magazines or various copies of different recipes

Steps:

  1. Put students into groups of three or four.
  2. Pass out magazines or recipes, so that each group has two or three magazines, or at least six to ten individual recipes.
  3. Give students five minutes in their groups to look through the recipes together, and instruct them to write down all the strong, specific cooking  verbs they come across.
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    Some of the verbs my students pulled from the recipes they used for inspiration

    Each student should keep his or her own list.

  4. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the verbs they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.
  5. Next, give students five minutes to start a new list. This time, they should write down all the units of measurement they see in the different ingredients lists.
  6. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the units they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.

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    Some of the units of measurement my students noticed in the recipes they read. Note the more unique ones, like “sprig” and “stalk.”
  7. Next, give students three minutes to examine the structure and format of the recipes together. They should write down elements they notice most or all of the recipes share. This should include items such as: prep time, cooking time, ingredients list, steps/process/procedure, servings, etc.
  8. After three minutes, ask students what elements a recipe should have, and write the elements on the board for the class to see.
  9. Explain to students that in a few minutes, they will write a recipe poem. A recipe poem is a poem that explains how to “cook” something abstract, such as a certain type of person, a certain emotion, or an experience. Give them some examples: a recipe for success, a recipe for a best friend, a recipe for the worst day ever, etc.
  10. Give students five minutes to brainstorm together in their groups. They should write down experiences, types of people, and emotions they think they might want to describe by way of a recipe poem.
  11. After five minutes, ask students to call their ideas out, and write them on the board for the class to see.

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    A few of the topics students volunteered to share with the class, about which they planned to write their recipe poems. I myself found “superhero” and “patriot” particularly intriguing.
  12. Remind students that their recipe poem should include all the elements of a recipe, and be formatted like a recipe. Instruct them to pick a topic, but not to tell anyone else in the class what their topic is.
  13. Give students about 15 minutes to write their recipe poem, allotting more time if needed.
  14. Once everyone has finished (or mostly finished) a recipe poem, instruct students to go around in their groups and read their recipe poems aloud to their group members, still withholding the subject. After each student reads, his group members should try to guess what his recipe is for. After each group member has guessed, the poet can reveal what his topic was.
  15. After each person in each group has had a chance to share her poem with her group, ask willing students to share their recipe poems aloud with the class.

My students really seemed to enjoy this activity–so much so, that we actually have to finish tomorrow because so many students were so eager to share their poems with the class. We ran out of time!